The Atlantic

Programmers: Stop Calling Yourselves Engineers

It undermines a long tradition of designing and building infrastructure in the public interest.
Source: Andrew Brookes / Corbis

I’m commiserating with a friend who recently left the technology industry to return to entertainment. “I’m not a programmer,” he begins, explaining some of the frustrations of his former workplace, before correcting himself, “—oh, engineer, in tech-bro speak. Though to me, engineers are people who build bridges and follow pretty rigid processes for a reason.”

His indictment touches a nerve. In the Silicon Valley technology scene, it’s common to use the bare term “engineer” to describe technical workers. Somehow, everybody who isn’t in sales, marketing, or design became an engineer. “We’re hiring engineers,” read startup websites, which could mean anything from Javascript programmers to roboticists.

The term is probably a shortening of “software engineer,” but its use betrays a secret: “Engineer” is an aspirational title in software development. Traditional engineers are regulated, certified, and subject to apprenticeship and continuing education. Engineering claims an explicit responsibility to public safety and reliability, even if it doesn’t always deliver.

The title “engineer” is cheapened by the tech industry.

Recent years have seen prominent failures in software. Massive data breaches at Target, Home Depot, BlueCross BlueShield, Anthem, Harvard University, LastPass, and Ashley Madison only scratch the surface of the cybersecurity issues posed by today’s computer systems. The Volkswagen diesel-emissions exploit was caused by a software failing, even if it seems to have been engineered, as it were, deliberately.

But these problems are just the most urgent and most memorable. Today’s computer systems pose individual and communal dangers that we’d never accept in more concrete structures like bridges, skyscrapers, power plants, and missile-defense systems. Apple’s iOS 9 update reportedly “bricked” certain phones, making quotes from an anonymous website, before twisting the dagger, “No, your startup contains incompetent engineers.”

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